The Design Studio of the Future
Anticipating an Inevitable Evolution
Co-Authored with Tom Foster
Quicksand is a design research, strategy, and innovation consultancy. This identity was decided over 10 years ago in response to a recognised market need at the time of founding: namely, to put the end-user at the centre of any engagement.
Recognising the broad potential for design as a problem-solving approach, Quicksand’s founding partners positioned the organisation as a hybrid between a traditional business consultancy and a modern design studio. The intention in doing so was to show our ability to inhabit two realities — the world of business (process) and the world of creativity (disruption).
With a bold decision like this at the core of our existence — particularly made against the background of a conservative (albeit fast-changing) India — it remains essential for us to continue evaluating emerging trends and possibilities for the future of our practice.
Like all startups, in our adolescence we wrestled with our identity — an incredibly tricky process, and one which necessarily evolves over time in response to ever-changing contexts and needs. What follows is an attempt to look around ourselves in situ to pick out some of the more dynamic trends that might represent opportunities for evolving the interdisciplinary design studio of the future.
EVOLUTIONS OF SCOPE — Enveloping the Design-Led Incubator
More design studios will extend their focus-areas beyond the current backbone of service-orientated offerings by stepping further into the realm of idea incubation.
In recent years, we have observed a general tendency of design studios to enlarge their set activities and in particular within the startup space. A new breed of “Swiss Army knife” design studios is slowly emerging. Global design leaders like IDEO and Frog, have already developed venture capital and incubation wings, but this practice is now reaching smaller independent practices as well (Made by Many, UsTwo, Mint Digital). The challenge is to create a spectrum of activities which can complement and inform each other.
In India, there are new signals of this evolving scope in the growing number of platforms and initiatives to stimulate entrepreneurship by seeding new incubators through schemes like Niti Aayog’s Atal Incubation Centres. But there is also an entrenched agnosticism towards design as a framework for running these incubators, and therefore the process of entrepreneurship tends to revert quickly to traditional business practices without the appropriate environment. Our belief is that there is a great opportunity to develop incubators built on the design process, as they will be better able to cope with the human changeability at the heart of entrepreneurship.
Recognising this fit, and already being strong advocates for the application of design to an ever-broader range of problems, Quicksand is willing to bet on full-blown incubation hubs becoming a central feature of the design studio of the future.
EVOLUTIONS OF ATTITUDE — A Growing Bias Towards Sustainability.
Design studios must continue to push their human-centred agenda beyond isolated instances, by striving to situate solutions within ecosystems — which are naturally biased towards sustainability.
Now that innovation has become a strategic priority for a majority of firms, many practitioners feel that there is a need to redefine the innovation concept and bring it to the next level to become fully impactful. Indeed, as with many buzzwords, the conception of innovation seems currently quite vague, if not superficial. Leading design thinkers are advocating for broadening the perspectives of innovation and putting sustainability at the heart of such approach.
In India, the concept of frugal innovation is a good example of how innovation can be envisioned in a more systemic and resilient way :
“Through minimising the use of resources in development, production and delivery, or by leveraging them in new ways, frugal innovation results in dramatically lower–cost products and services” — Nesta Report, 2012
Similarly, at Quicksand we believe in a more sustainable and durable approach where innovation is envisioned as a function of a nurturing and inclusive ecosystem. This sustainable approach implies that newness is not pursued for its own sake and that resources are used more efficiently.
Quicksand is already at the forefront of this shifting paradigm in India. We’re convinced that design studios should continue to take a wider social responsibility for leading education, and driving the conversations, which will bring this fundamental change.
EVOLUTIONS OF IDENTITY — Anticipating Significant Changes to the World of Work
The workplace — and indeed the whole notion of work — will continue to change unrecognisably, not least because of the effects of advancing technology. This will be especially evident for the practice of design research which prizes context so highly.
With technological advances, design studio identities are currently being redefined. There are many ways to approach the question of identity, and usually it is founded in some kind of consistency. This could be consistency of physical space, or the consistent presence of a group of people. The difficulty in the instance of the design studio is that the principles of human centred design are oriented around proximity to the context of a given challenge — meaning that there is little to anchor us to a specific location, or indeed time.
The newly founded (2014) global design studio — Studio D is a great example of how such identity can be redefined. The company recently pioneered the idea of the Pop-up Studio, an ephemeral studio that is located in the field for the duration of a project. The natural consequence of such an approach is the redefinition of the notion of belonging to an employer. Chipchase is leading the field here by adapting the journalistic role of the Fixer to the needs of design research projects (see the Fixer List).
Quicksand, and its peers, already employ a similar approach — but moving into the future, we see a further decentralisation of our organisation. We already have studio spaces in Delhi, Bangalore, and now Goa, but each of these are becoming more specialised and focused. We are learning that the positioning of these physical studios will also be informed by context, and it’s plain to see that the business focuses of our studios — coupled with that of our autonomous team of so-called T-shaped consultants — will become more specialised and focused throughout the organisation.
Evolution of Practice : A Technology-Driven Revolution of Methodology
The advent of paradigm-shifting technologies — such as AR/VR — will completely disrupt and open up the possibilities for the current design methodology.
The development of new media technologies is not only opening new and endless opportunities for design studios identity but also for its practices. Indeed, such exponential progress questions the pertinence and adaptability of design methodology that put human insights and user observations at the center of its research. The challenge is therefore to give technologies and machines the right place to help facilitate these interactions without altering them.
Quicksand is convinced that technologies like virtual reality can be a great tool to engage with users in immersive experience that will help to test concept scenarios at earlier stage of the process, with a lower cost and potentially better results. The realistic and real time aspect of VR or AR can help to prototype complex behaviors and foster reflection-in-action. It also reduces the risk of misunderstandings between human actors that can be biased by different interpretations of language of images.
Our studio already has a track record of including technology at the core of its practice. An example of this is Quicksand’s recent successful foray into video game production, Antariksha Sanchar, which is currently being developed for full release. We are always eager to try out new technologies and discover its potential application for our work: we recently experimented motion capturing system at the studio and thinking of how we could integrate this in some of our future projects.
CHANGE IS COMING: But When Will It Arrive?
Predictions, such as those above, are all well and good, but how can one reduce the gap between these as ‘moon-shot’ speculative observations and the reality of the day-to-day work of the design studio practitioner?
Our studio, based in the Indian context, is already grappling with the reality of these implications. In many ways, the radical nature of our day-to-day lives — engaging with a spectrum of life experienced by those at the BoP, in the boardroom of traditional Indian corporates and then with pioneering global non-profits in the humanitarian space — means that we have to experiment all the time. This necessity has frozen us in a form of the perpetual lean startup mentality — always adapting, testing, playing, and being bold in our decisions.
We feel that this keeps us alive at the frontier of the global discourse on what the design studio might and should become — and we cordially invite you to join us there.